Reflections on a Tunisian Afternoon
It was a slow afternoon like every other summer afternoon in Mesjed Aissa. Those women of the village who worked in factories in the surrounding towns had come back from work. (There was no work in the village outside the home.) Lunch had been prepared and eaten, the dishes cleaned and put away, and the daily sweeping, airing the rugs, etc. finished until the new day begins. It was now my favorite time of day, that time of day when we — we being Khalti Aisha, the matriarch of the family next door (as old as the mountains, sweet, funny , and my Mother away from home), her daughter Nejiba, Khalti Reqaya (Khalti Aisha’s sidekick and partner in crime), and whatever married and unmarried female relatives from the block who happenned to stop by, and the usual number of small children hanging out — inevitably sat in the courtyard of Khalti Aisha’s house after the midday sun passed from overhead to behind the wall, where its heat no longer made us uncomfortable.
There we sat every afternoon with the kanoon — a funny-looking clay pot filled with coals — enjoying our daily tea ritual. The little tea pot would seem like it was a child’s toy compared to our tea kettles. But this tea was a tradition leftover from the days when water didn’t flow like it does now. So in went maybe a glass of water, a lot of sugar, and just the right amount of tea. I can’t say how much — that was what our daily ritual was about, getting it just right. The tea brewed slowly over the hot coals. It was not meant to be done easily. It was meant to “cook” just right. A properly brewed cup of Tunisian tea is still one of those rare joys to be savored. While it brewed, we chatted, the kids played. It brewed for 30-45 minutes, never boiling. Then the tasting begins: pouring a wee bit in one of the tiny shot-glass-type glasses the Arabs use to drink their tea, holding the glass at the bottom with the base planted in the palm, encircled by my fingers, swishing it around, cooling it, and finally…sipping it. Was it raw (did it need to cook more)? Did it need more tea (the tea was cooked but the drink weak)? Did it need more sugar? Or was it another perfect cup?
Every afternoon and every evening after dinner we performed the same ritual. It was the time to relax, the chores done, stomachs full, food put away, the time to care about the little pleasures. We sat drinking our tea that afternoon when Nafisa came in. Her cousin was soon having her baby — God willing — and to celebrate some cousins and neighbors had gathered in the courtyard of the house three houses down. The cousin, Habiba, was decorating her feet and hands with henna today. She would be beautiful when the baby came. It was not an official celebration. It was not planned. Someone had some henna, someone else had a darbuka, the clay and goatskin drum that is played by Tunisians, there was ALWAYS a pot of tea brewing, and with nothing better to do, a party had evolved. Did we want to join them?
As usual, it was just the women of our block. Arab women are not as confined to the home as some literature would have us believe, but going across the village or much beyond the block meant dressing up. This was not to be one of those days. The summer attire was inevitably cotton, caftans (my preferred wardrobe), or simply a Western skirt and blouse. Some of the older generation would still drape themselves in the safsari, or what looks to Westerners as a white sheet (Tunisian women wear only white) when passing between houses. And in Mesjed Aissa there were still a small number of women who wore the traditional Berber takhlilla. These women were all older than the mountains. It is a tradition which is seeing its last generation.
So together with my neighbor Khalti Aisha, Khalti Reqaya (Khalti means “aunt” in Arabic, and is a term of respect to be used with older women), Nejiba, and company, we dropped in on the neighbors. The main gate to the house was a large, wide structure that led to a white stucco building. This was a traditional Tunisian home, or dar arabi, where the rooms circled the central courtyard. The courtyard was where all the activity was in the summertime, protected from the streets and grime outside, often shaded by some olive or fruit tree, the courtyard was where the couscous (the staple of the Tunisian diet) was made, the red peppers dried and ground, and the TV brought outside at night to enjoy the cool, dry air and again sip more tea. Here we found Khalti Latifa swaying around to a slow beat, bearing a large kanoon filled with bkhur, raw frankincense slowly burning over hot coals, bending down now and then to place the kanoon at the chest level of each guest, enabling each to absorb and get lost in the raw scent of the frankincense for a moment, before swaying back up leaving a waft of perfume floating in the confined air of the courtyard.
Someone was beating a darbuka. I don’t know who. It was just always being played. Nothing fancy. Just a constant beat. And everyone sang. Singing was a part of each woman’s life. The radio shut off in Tunisia every morning at 9 a.m., so those women who stayed at home sang, and their songs were passed down to the young children at home. Everyone sang. And the girls were encouraged to dance once they became old enough to stand.
In Mesjed Aissa, girls were all encouraged to dance until they married, at which time their only audience from then on would be their husbands. And situations such as these were the forum where the girls would practice, so that when they appeared at weddings in their finest dresses, where the boys would get a glimpse of them, they would be comfortable. It was also the place where these girls would see their friends, cousins, the closest thing akin to a youth group. In their cotton dresses, they would take a muharma, or scarf, from their hair or from a neighbor and tie it around their hips, and move from the hips, dancing to the beat of the darbuka.
The inevitable gossip continued through the late afternoon: who was marrying whom, who was becoming engaged to whom, who was not invited to each party, the price of carrots, when the peaches would be ripe to pick, who was pregnant and which of their children had passed their exams. And amid Khalti Latifa with her bkhur, the girls moving to the darbuka, the singing, the pouring of tea, rinsing of the glasses and the pouring of more tea, Hanadi was sitting against the large pillows relaxing while the older women applied henna to her feet. This was to be the last few days of calm before the delivery of her child, and today she would relax and let the older women ensure that she would look her best.
Her feet now wrapped to hold the henna through the night, the maghreb, or sunset call to prayer, was being called on the speakers of the village mosque. The men would soon return from the coffeehouses and their perches on various chairs throughout the streets of the village, and it was time to prepare some dinner for them as they returned home. Tomorrow was another day. Who knows what it would bring.
Reprinted by permission from the Washington Area Mid East Dance Association newsletter.
Hanan lived in the village of Mesjed Aissa, Tunisia, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, 1985-87. She then lived along the Ethiopian border of the Sudan, where she worked as part of a refugee relief operation, 1988-89. She has travelled extensively in the Middle East, and in 1991 returned to Mesjed Aissa. Her approach to dancing reflects the experiences she writes about. Her dancing reflects the spontaneity, celebration and ritual of abandonment that it serves in Arab culture. She currently performs in the Washington, D.C. area and serves as Vice President for Programs of the Washington Area Mid East Dance Association. She is currently writing a book on her experiences in the lives of the women of North Africa. www.hanandances.com